CHIJ old girls pay tribute to alma mater on its 160th anniversary

The Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) schools celebrate their 160th anniversary this year. SundayLife! talks to five prominent old girls, who say their education there has shaped them to be who they are today

Annabel Pennefather. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Annabel Pennefather. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Prof Lily Kong and with her classmates (above, left). -- PHOTO: NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF SINGAPORE
Prof Lily Kong (above) and with her classmates. -- PHOTO: NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF SINGAPORE
Dr Noreen Chan said her teachers encouraged her to think and to dream. She is with her friend Evelyn Koh (above) in a picture taken in 1981. -- PHOTO: NOREEN CHAN
Dr Noreen Chan (above) said her teachers encouraged her to think and to dream. She is with her friend Evelyn Koh in a picture taken in 1981. -- PHOTO:  NOREEN CHAN
Mrs May Fam (front row, left) dressed as Fabian for a school performance of Shakespeare’s Twelth Night in 1961. -- PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA
Three-generation family of CHIJ girls: (back row, from left) Christine Fam, Andrea Fam, Sophia Sebastian (who will be attending an IJ school in future), Katherine Sebastian, Denise Fam, (centre row, from left) Fiona Yodkaewnan, Chiara Sebastian, May Fam, Lilian Kao, Amanda Tan and Caroline Tan, (front row, from left) Brenna Tan and Isabella Sebastian. -- PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA



Occupation: Owner of Simply Bread, a bakery chain that specialises in hand-made bread, sandwiches and pastries

Years in CHIJ: Seven

Ms Christine Fam is from the second generation in a three-generation family of Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) girls.

Her mother, Mrs May Fam, went to CHIJ with her three sisters, and Ms Fam, too, attended the school with her three sisters.

Ms Fam's older sister, Katherine, has two daughters - Chiara, 11, and Isabella, eight - who are attending the school.

"Being from IJ is a family tradition and is something to be treasured," says Mrs May Fam, 67, a retiree. "We know the same people and we can talk about the same people."

She taught English and Literature at the school for 31 years, between 1969 and 2000. This meant that all four of her daughters literally went to school with her.

While none of them was taught by her, one of her nieces was, because her sisters sent their daughters to IJ too.

Mrs Fiona Yodkaewnan, 43, says it was "quite strange" to be taught by her aunt.

Says the professional support lawyer: "I had to call her Mrs Fam and treat her like a teacher even though I would usually greet her "youngest aunt" in Cantonese at family gatherings."

Mrs Fam's two younger daughters also recall other encounters with teachers in the school who had seen them grow up.

Says speech therapist Denise Fam, 31: "It was really weird at the start having teachers say to me, 'I used to carry you when you were a baby'. But I got used to it after some time."

Her younger sister, Andrea, 27, adds that teachers used to call her by her sisters' names because they had taught her sisters in the past.

"I would be called Katherine, Christine and Denise before my own name," says the art gallery assistant.

Did having their mother teach in the same school stress them out?

Ms Christine Fam says: "I was spacey then, so I didn't think I had to prove myself in those particular subjects. I was quiet and usually stood at the back."

The four sisters also did not address their mother as "Mrs Fam" in school, choosing instead to call her "SWMBO", which stood for "she who must be obeyed", the way the lead character in British TV series Rumpole of the Bailey refers to his wife.

"It was our inside joke," says Ms Christine Fam. "My mother didn't bat an eyelid when we called her that. She didn't see what was so funny about it, which is precisely why it was so funny to us."

Besides being able to share many laughs together, the Fams and their cousins say going to the same school has given them the same values.

Ms Christine Fam's cousin, Mrs Caroline Tan, 50, says she appreciates that the school was particular about passing down Christian values.

"In my time, I had teachers who would tell us off if we misbehaved, or if we had poor manners and showed disrespect to others," says the housewife.

She enrolled both her daughters, Amanda, 18, and Brenna, 12, at the school. "I like the values that I was taught and I wanted my children to be taught those same values too," she says. "I have never considered sending my daughters anywhere else."

Indeed, when asked about the values she has learnt, Brenna cites the acronym CHRIST, which stands for Courage, Humility, Respect, Integrity, Steadfastness and Thoughtfulness.

She adds that she and her cousin Chiara are close because they go to the same school and see each other at least twice a week.

So strong is the family's loyalty to the school that both Brenna and Chiara say without hesitation that "we will also send our daughters to CHIJ in future".

Says Brenna with adult-like wisdom: "We are the next generation. Together, across the generations, we are bonded in a special relationship where we can call one another IJ sisters."

MEDICINE: Dr Noreen Chan


Occupation: Senior Consultant at the Department of Haematology-Oncology, National University Cancer Institute Singapore

Years in CHIJ: 11 (including K2)

Dr Noreen Chan says her teachers encouraged her to think and to dream. "We felt like everything was possible."

She says she and her peers were encouraged to express themselves in class and on stage. "Our ideas could be quite out there, but no one ever said, 'that's nonsense'."

A case in point was a project where her class was divided into groups and and the girls were asked to create a newspaper from any era.

The result? One space-age newspaper, another one from ancient Egypt that looked like a scroll and one set in the Middle Ages. She says: "We really let our imaginations run riot."

A self-confessed "sickening over-achiever", she says she was academically strong. She was also a national swimmer and president of the school's Science & Maths Society.

In the society, she recalls being given free reign to do the writing, design, layout, printing and even the sales of its annual newsletter.

"We weren't 'vetted' much," she says. "It was that 'you can do it' attitude that gave us confidence."

When she was a student in the 1980s, she recalls there was still "a lot of gender stereotyping".

However, she says, "we never felt that just because we were girls, we could not do this or that".

She also appreciated the atmosphere of religious freedom in the school. As a Buddhist, she "always felt welcome and respected".

She recalls her Secondary 3 class being given the chance to lead Mass, which involved choosing hymns and readings. This was open to everyone, not just the Catholic students. She sang in the choir and played the organ.

"Masses were big events and the Secondary 3 classes took the responsibility very seriously. After all, you got to lead the entire school. It was a great honour," she says.

She adds that these activities served to bond her class of 42 even more because they already got along very well.

"We just clicked. Last time, there was no Facebook, so when you see your friends in school, you make the most of it," she says, adding that they had a "class notebook" that they passed around.

"Anyone could start a topic and others would comment or draw. One time, we were debating who would win the World Cup and there were comments like 'Michel Platini (former French football player and manager) forever'," she says.

Dr Chan, who is single, says she still keeps in touch with her classmates on WhatsApp and meets them about once a year.

Asked about the stereotypical "convent girl" image, she says: "Some might say 'havoc', but not us. We were really quite good girls." Havoc is a local slang word for behaving wildly.

ACADEMIC: Professor Lily Kong


Occupation: Vice Provost of Academic Personnel at the National University of Singapore

Years in CHIJ: 10

Professor Lily Kong says the school has shaped her in many ways.

"We were taught that no one owes us a living, and that we reap what we sow," she says. "If we wanted to achieve a goal, we had to work for it."

The former school prefect says she was one of the "boring good students" who studied hard and was very organised.

Her classmates, she recalls, would even follow her examination-preparation timetables.

She was involved in several co-curricular activities in school, including the Math and Science Society, the School Magazine Editorial Board, the table tennis school team, and the Literary, Drama and Debate Society.

But even the best students have a playful side.

She recalls sliding down banisters - something strictly disallowed by the nuns because it was unladylike. She also went to another IJ school's tuckshop "because their chicken wings were nicer" and spent hours with her friends in an out-of-bounds space above the school hall.

"This 'loft' was an empty space. We would climb up and sit there and chat," she reminisces.

There were also occasions when she snuck into the nun's quarters, which were out of bounds to students.

"We wandered there because we were curious. I remember seeing their sewing and noticing that the floor tiles and furniture in their rooms were from a time gone by," she says.

The Catholic student also ran to the school chapel each time before her examination results came out.

"It was a tad late by then, but better late than never," says Prof Kong, who is single.

In 1994, she published a social history book on the mission school for girls, titled Convent Chronicles. She co-wrote it with her friends, Ms Low Soon Ai and Ms Jacqueline Yip, who are also alumnae.

Prof Kong came up with the idea for the book.

She says: "A school so historical and so memorable to so many people deserves to be captured in writing."

She adds that she always responds to calls from the school, whether it is to give talks to students, contribute to a bursary or buy brownies.

"It's the least I can do after all the school has done for me," she says.

"The school has made me a person with social responsibility, and who is fair and committed to whatever I set my mind to do."

CEO: Ng Hsueh Ling


Occupation: CEO of real estate investment trust Keppel Reit

Years in CHIJ: 10

Ms Ng Hsueh Ling says her IJ education nurtured a strong sense of self-confidence in her and her peers.

"We felt that the world was our oyster and that we could do anything we set our hearts on."

She says this was partially because the school did not stress only academic achievement, but also sought to develop well-rounded girls.

She says her class was extremely "naughty". They would make so much noise that teachers would punish them by making them stand outdoors, with their arms raised towards the sky.

"We would still be laughing even though we were standing out there in the hot sun," she recalls with a laugh.

Her entire class would also try to trick teachers from time to time, by swapping classrooms with other classes.

Such playful acts also took the form of walking on tables, pulling one another's hair for fun and talking during lessons.

Another cheeky act saw the whole class wearing their uniforms the other way round, then sitting with their backs to the front and perching their spectacles on the back of their heads - just to trick their teachers.

"At that time, who knew what the future held. We were all just footloose and fancy-free," she says.

She was a Girl Guide and practised judo. "Judo taught me endurance and Girl Guides taught me teamwork," she says.

She adds that those qualities, in addition to the holistic education of the school, helped to prepare her for her current leadership role.

"The school taught me how to connect with people, regardless of their background, be they rich or poor."

One person from school who demonstrated that to her was Sister Elizabeth Browne, who was principal of the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus in Victoria Street from 1975 to 1982.

The Irish nun would smile at every student and ask them how they were, recalls Ms Ng, who is married.

"Her tone of voice was always gentle and kindly, and she made everyone of us feel special."

Ms Ng still meets with some of her classmates a few times a year and served in the CHIJ Old Girls' Association for a few years.

"Having studied in CHIJ between the ages of six and 16, I consider it a special part of my life," she says. "It was a period when we looked at the future through rose-tinted glasses."

SPORTS: Annabel Pennefather


Occupation: Vice-President of the Singapore National Olympic Council and a member of the Olympic Games Selection Committee

Years in CHIJ: 12 (including two years of pre-university)

Many people know Ms Annabel Pennefather for her sporting achievements.

Apart from her current job, she is also a former national hockey player, former president of the Singapore Hockey Federation and Singapore's first female chef de mission to the Olympics.

But she is equally committed to volunteerism and serving others.

The passion for sports and volunteerism, she says, is what her IJ education has given her.

She currently serves on the management committee of the Infant Jesus Homes and Children's Centres, which reaches out to vulnerable youth.

"The sisters emphasised to us the need to be of service to others," she says.

"I feel very privileged to be able to do this at this stage of my life."

Prior to 1995, the centre was known as the Infant Jesus Convent Orphanage and Home for Abandoned Babies - because of the babies who used to be left at the CHIJ in Victoria Street. The nuns cared for them and raised them.

Ms Pennefather says the nuns' kindness left an impression upon her. "Even if something we did warranted discipline, we were always shown compassion and kindness," she says.

She tries to do the same herself. "Sometimes people think I'm being soft, but I'm just not being aggressive," she says.

When it comes to sports, however, she is competitive.

She played hockey and netball and was also involved in some athletic events in school, including high jump and long jump.

She remembers her school's Sports Days being held at the former St Joseph's Institution (SJI) school field, "where many of my friends met their future life partners".

The SJI boys would make it a point to be among the spectators, she says.

"The boys were there not just to watch sports, but to see the girls in shorts," she says with a chuckle.

She says she did not have any "serious relationship" with any SJI boy, but recalls hanging out with them because her only brother, who is five years older than her, was an SJI boy.

"We used to have parties at our house, where my brother would invite his SJI friends and I would invite my IJ friends. Our parents would be around and watching us. It was quite a fun thing," she says.

She was far from being a party animal though.

She recalls being a "serious and disciplined" student, in part because of her father's training.

Her late father Percy Pennefather was a senior assistant commissioner in the police force. He also played in the national hockey team and was a former coach and president of the Singapore Hockey Federation.

Ms Pennefather, who is married with a daughter, holds her school motto - "Simple in Virtue, Steadfast in Duty" - close to her heart.

"I believe in being humble, not arrogant. And I believe in being responsible, to do my given tasks well," she says.

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